Religion as Evolved Adaptation — The Failure to Test with History

As regular readers of this blog know, I have several problems with the theories proposed by those who contend that religion is an evolved adaptation and was specifically targeted by selection.  In this context, I have usually taken issue with the work of David Sloan Wilson, Matt Rossano, and Nicholas Wade (see “Religion as Evolved Adaptation — The Fallacy of Backwards Projection“).  Having recently read (or re-read) Joseph Bulbulia’s work, I would like to add him to this list.  You can find his publications here.

In an article titled “Are There Any Religions: An Evolutionary Exploration,” Bulbulia begins by asserting that religion (or more specifically, the universal human tendency towards supernatural thinking) is a “panhuman capacity” that springs naturally from a universal cognitive architecture which generates religious products.  These products are, of course, heavily patterned by historical circumstance and cultural place.

Borrowing from the evolutionary biologist Sewall Wright’s notion of a “fitness landscape,” Bulbulia contends that a panhuman cognitive psychology “canalizes” thinking in the direction of religion.   Although Sewall Wright’s theory is mathematical, it can be visualized:

The peaks constitute optimum fitness but are costly and thus rarely attained.  The more likely course is that the evolved mind takes a path of lesser resistance, flowing like a river through valleys and only occasionally climbing peaks.  So this is what Bulbulia means when he says that the religious mind is “strongly canalized.  Canalized design features are functionally organized phenotypic expressions whose end-states remain stable under a range of normal environmental conditions.”

So far so good: there are several evolved aspects of the human mind — shared by everyone — which incline humans towards supernatural thinking and which in more recent times (i.e., following the Neolithic Revolution) coalesce into what we call “religion.”  Bulbulia’s next step is far less persuasive: “selection has canalized religious psychology to foster rapid solutions to two recurrent adaptive problems: getting along with others, and getting along with ourselves.”

Here we have another version of the argument that religion evolved to make people more cooperative, prosocial, and “moral.”  Bulbulia’s preferred method for testing his hypothesis is to use various economic game experiments, which usually show that self-identified religious people tend to be more cooperative than non-religious people.  From these experiments, Bulbulia concludes that religion evolved for this purpose.

There are three problems with this approach.  First, it is critical to note that the fitness landscape has not remained stable; it changed repeatedly during the course of hominid evolution and especially as humans shifted from hunting and gathering to sedentism and agriculture.  The second is the fallacy of backwards projection, which assumes that religion today functions in the same way as it did in the Paleolithic past.  I questioned this assumption in a previous post.  The third problem arises from the fact that we cannot test this idea in a Paleolithic setting, at a time when shamanic practices were the dominant mode of spiritual expression.

Indeed, my reading the of the immense literature on shamanism suggests that it had much less to do with promoting cooperation and morality, and much more to do with understanding the cosmos and the unpredictable and uncontrollable nature of life.  Although shamanic practices today are less widespread than they were during our hunting and gathering past (and thus can serve as only rough proxies of Paleolithic shamanism), Bulbulia’s ideas would best be tested in small-scale societies where shamanism is dominant.  I suspect his findings would be much different.

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